I am looking through scores of pieces that I particularly like.

I can't understand (as this is the first time I have come across it) why here, in the manuscript, some instruments are named as follows:

X in B or X in F (X representing an instrument).

  • What does the in mean exactly? And why is it written as such? Does this have anything to do with its key?

  • Why do the kettledrums have a diagram with it too? In F, C, and A?

I have highlighted the sections in the image below.

tchaikovsky fourth symphony

  • Possible duplicate of What are the practical reasons for still having transposing instruments?
    – ttw
    Dec 16, 2017 at 20:21
  • 1
    OK. I'm always willing to see what others think about the subject. It is an important point that beginners in the orchestration field may not get. (Same for lots of notation.)
    – ttw
    Dec 16, 2017 at 20:54
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    Technically, that's not a "manuscript", since it's not written by hand. It should be called a "score" (so named because the production process traditionally involved scoring a metal plate). Dec 17, 2017 at 5:17
  • I'm more curious why the key signature for the horns and trumpets doesn't match that of the other instruments. Shouldn't they have three flats? Dec 17, 2017 at 7:25
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    The key signatures for transposing instruments will be different. The B clarinet (in English written as Bb) instrument as example, could have a written C but will sound B-flat. This "translates" into two fewer B-s in the key signature. By the way, played 2nd bassoon on this symphony a month ago. I believe the trumpet players had C trumpets (definitely not any F trumpets), possibly transposing.
    – ghellquist
    Dec 17, 2017 at 18:44

4 Answers 4


Some instruments are what we call transposing instruments. For various historical reasons, these instruments are written in keys different than how they sound. A good rule to remember is:

When a transposing instrument plays a written C, it sounds its name.

In other words, when a Horn in F plays a written C, it sounds its name, or F. From this we realize that the Horn in F sounds a perfect fifth lower than it is written. So these horns that start off on a written E♭ are actually sounding the A♭ below it.

The Clarinets in B are actually in B♭. This is because of the German tradition that B is B♭ and H is B♮. But the rule is still the same: when a B♭ Clarinet plays a written C, it sounds a B♭. Since this is a major second lower than written, we know that their written B♭ sounds like an A♭.

So, a little test for you, if you want (put your cursor over the blank answer): if a Trumpet in D plays an E♭, what pitch will it sound like?


When it comes to the timpani (Pauken), each individual drum is just tuned to one of those three pitches. In other words, the head of one drum is stretched such that hitting it produces an F; the other, a C; and the last, an A.

  • Would you mind elaborating Richard on what you mean when you say “the drums are tuned to those three pitches”? I don’t quite understand.
    – cmp
    Dec 16, 2017 at 20:38
  • @cmp Timpani have pitch, and you can tune them (but only to a single pitch at a time). This is saying what pitches they should have for this piece. Dec 16, 2017 at 21:46
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    Orchestral transposing instruments play their name in response to a C note, but some other instruments are described in terms of their lowest note which might not be notated "C". For example, a concert-pitch tin whistle would be described as being pitched in "D", and a concert-pitch guitar would be tuned in "E".
    – supercat
    Dec 16, 2017 at 23:00
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    @supercat - never heard of a guitar, concert tuned, referred to as 'in E'. Although it does transpose an octave down.
    – Tim
    Dec 17, 2017 at 17:13
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    @Tim: Being "in E" would be the default, so it would rarely be mentioned explicitly [one would generally say "Standard" rather than "Standard E". It's not uncommon, however, for guitars to be tuned down while keeping the same relative intervals ("Standard D" would be two frets own from normal); if just their lower string is tuned down while keeping the others at the same pitch, that would be called "Drop D". In C-pitch nomenclature, a "D" instrument would be a major second higher than usual, but a guitar tuned to "Standard D" would play a major second lower than usual.
    – supercat
    Dec 17, 2017 at 17:56

IN orchestral (and other instrumental) music, the notation like "Clarinet in Bb" (or "Klarinette in B") means that the instrument is a "transposing instrument." When the clarinetist plays what his music shows as a "C." the note comes out as a Bb. The true (or "concert") note is always one whole step below the notation. With instruments with the notation "in F" the meaning is that the concert note is a perfect fifth below the notation.

There are historical reasons for this. The main reasons are that instruments come in groups. There are clarinets in Bb, A, Eb, and C (that I know of). Each has the same fingering for its "nominal" scale. A C is a C is a C for the players even if the sounding notes are A, Bb or Eb.

Tympani (kettledrums) are tuned to the notes shown in the score. When sounded, these drums give off this note. Thus one needs only as many drums as are being played rather than one for each potential note.

  • 1
    Yeah, I think the real answer is in here--there are F and Bb trumpets (and Bb trumpets are so ubiquitous nowadays that I'm surprised those trumpets aren't in Bb), and the Bb and A clarinets are both fairly common. If the score didn't label which transposition of instrument was desired, the conductor could easily assign someone with the wrong instrument and get results in the wrong key.
    – Dekkadeci
    Dec 17, 2017 at 6:40
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    @Dekkadeci - those trumpets are in fact in Bb - it's German music, which calls Bb 'B'. B translates to 'H'. A conductor worth his salt would look at the key sig. written for any possibly transposing instrument, and work out which is appropriate.
    – Tim
    Dec 17, 2017 at 17:12
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    @Tim, but the trumpets in the image are clearly "Trompeten...in F".
    – Dekkadeci
    Dec 17, 2017 at 19:51
  • @Dekkadeci - F trumpets were the norm in C19, being the valved versions of the old, natural F trumpet with a sounding length of about 7'. As the taste for brighter & higher trumpet parts with more active writing gained momentum, the more familiar B♭ trumpet, & later C trumpet, became more common. As their air-columns are shorter, they can be more responsive in fast passages. Feb 2, 2018 at 1:31

Some instruments are notated as 'Transposing Instruments' In this score we have Clarinets in Bb (the Germans use 'B' for 'Bb'), Trumpets and Horns in F. That means that when the player reads the note C, the pitch actually played is Bb or F. There are historical and practical reasons for this. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transposing_instrument

The Timpani (Pauken) instruction 'F, C, A' is a bit different. It indicates that three kettles are required, and they are initially to be tuned to F, C and A. (Timpanists call their drums 'kettles'. It's a nice name, that is worth keeping alive I think.)


For reasons I don't quite understand, all answers up to now refer to transposing instruments, which seems more like a coincidence than the real cause. While it is true, that one could detect the necessary variant of a non-transposing instrument by analyzing the notated range, this requires detailed knowledge and is still error-prone. Note also, that notation conventions are not permanent, so tympani were once notated transposed, but are no longer today.

Stating the instrument tuning is primarily necessary to designate the required variant since there are several to choose from (in clarinet case in descending order of demand: b flat, a and e flat). It is a well-established convention to list everything required on page one of the full score (here also instruments are listed, which don’t have to play anything at the beginning, similar to a cookbook recipe, where all ingredients are also given before the explanation of how to process them), and this is repeated on the single voices for each instrument, so the player prepares accordingly.

Knowledge of the intended variant of the instrument is also helpful for interpretation, which pitch will sound, but beyond the conductor and the players of the respective instrument you will seldom find non-professionals fluently doing it. That technical advances (as with French horn, pedal tympani) now allows quicker switching is a different topic.

  • At composition time of Tchaikovskys fourth symphony the double horn was not yet invented, so mentioning the type is already justified to match the original.
  • The reference to the possibility of mental transposition ignores the main reason for having transposing instruments at all.

See also this question fore background and note, that different movements may ask for different types (at least chamber music occasionally surprises our clarinet player).

  • Wouldn't have thought a clarinettist would give much thought to pitches, beyond using a Bb clarinet when the dots were for that, or an A clarinet when they were written to compensate for that.
    – Tim
    Dec 17, 2017 at 17:18
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    Quite a lot wrong there I'm afraid @guidot. A Clarinet is lower than Bb Clarinet, but Eb clarinet is higher. A 'double' French Horn does indeed consist of a F Horn and a Bb Horn, but no 'set up' is required, the switch is instantaneous with a thumb-operated valve and a player may well choose different 'sides' of the instrument for different notes in a passage of music. There are a few instruments that have a pitch name but DON'T transpose - Eb, F and C Tubas, also Bb Trombones all read concert pitch bass clef (in the orchestra at least) - but most instruments with a pitch name do transpose.
    – Laurence
    Dec 18, 2017 at 0:08
  • @LaurencePayne Your comment seems to have missed, that I related to clarinet’s frequency of use, not sound. I also did not claim, that all named instruments do transpose, but the first paragraph expresses my surprise, that other answers focus on transposing instruments.
    – guidot
    Jan 9, 2021 at 11:11

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